BECOMING MAE WEST by Emily Wortis Leider


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 A wide-ranging biography and social history examining the years in which Mae West the woman became Mae West the theater and movie star and cultural icon. It's a mark of how definitive a character Mae West was that even people who have never seen one of her movies are likely to know what she looked liked and how she talked, and to know one or more of her most famous quips. In this new biography Leider demonstrates that this character was the work of a woman who painstakingly reinvented herself over a long career, starting as a child performer at the turn of the century and on into an extensive period in vaudeville, burlesque, and finally Broadway, where she wrote and starred in the plays that defined Mae West for America. This period in West's life remains little understood, and Leider brings vividly to life the young entertainer, as well as the entertainment world in which she moved. But Leider also widens her focus to detail the cultural history of the period, showing how changes in social and sexual mores affected West and how she, in turn, affected them. There are some narrative infelicities: The sequence of events is occasionally jumbled, and Leider is prone to show off her research with long lists of almost random details. And Leider (California's Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and Her Times, 1991) believes that after censors effectively ended West's film career at the end of the '30s, little she did was worthy of note. Thus she disposes of the last 40 years of West's life in an 8-page epilogue. But for the most part this is lively, incisive reading. A vibrant story of a star's life and times--not just for the movie buffs. (photos)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-374-10959-1
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1997